A Day in the Life of a Translator


This is from an interview that Mark Heaney did with me for a linguistics magazine in his home country, Northern Ireland. This is part I of the interview, in which I answer questions about the day-to-day life of a translator, as well as some more philosophical issues… Parts II and III of the interview will be published at some stage this week. Hope you enjoy it…

english german translator g.brunner

A day in the life of a translator
Ever wondered what translators get up to? Austrian-based translator Gabriel Brunner, owner of G.Brunner Translation which specializes in English-German translation, spills the beans.

What’s a typical day in the life of a translator like?
The truth is, we don’t do typical days! The life of a translator changes depending on the work they have on, and there is no nine to five. So you have to be flexible and resilient, and since I work alone most of the time, you need to be disciplined. When the workload is big and deadlines are tight, you need to work around the clock – coffee is often the only friend in your life.

Ever been that busy you go cross-eyed?
A lot! It’s easy to get too close and not be able to see the wood for the trees. A good tip here is printing out your work and going to the cafe or better, the pub, and reading through the translation – it helps you see it better. The beauty is, though, that we can generally work from anywhere, and this can help you distance yourself from the work.

What types of jobs do you typically get?

Maybe better to talk about what I haven’t done. I haven’t done any translation of proper literature, for example. It’s something that would interest me but these kinds of translations are largely left to bilingual writers rather than translators.

I get a lot of legal documents in, which can be tedious but it’s not difficult and there is a lot of demand. But in general, 80% of the volume of translation on a global level is technical, so I do a lot of that, and it interests me as well.

What’s the most interesting job you’ve ever received?
I have worked at conferences on an EU level, and you meet interesting people there. Barroso, the ex-European president, I’ve met him. I interpreted for a tour guide in a mine once – fascinating stuff, and really tests your technical vocabulary, too. And I have interpreted for David Copperfield, the illusionist, at a show in my home town. I would say that as a translator, and especially as an interpreter, you do get around more than other people, and learn about a lot of things.

So tell us, how do you make stuff disappear? Like, say, the Empire State building? Or bills?
I’m sworn to secrecy. I actually signed a paper stating I wouldn’t tell anyone. But we saw the same show four times, backstage, and we did find out how a lot of the tricks worked. Let’s just say, I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.

If you can tell me how to make Angelina Jolie appear, I could limageive with that.
Haha. I would if I could.

I once heard that translators cheekily used to charge per word produced and would sometimes use 5 words or more where one would do. Is that true?

Haha, it has been done, yes. English-German translation would be perfect for this, because texts usually become quite a bit longer when you translate them into German. But no, we normally charge per word of source text so the price is established before an assignment starts.

I’ve often wondered, what do translators do when they don’t know how to translate something?

It happens more than you’d think! It’s not like we’ve got a little babelfish in our ear or it all just comes to you. Translators are investigators. We use the internet of course, and certain software that helps us get things done, but it’s all about having a network of contacts and buddies really, making phone calls, sometimes physically going somewhere to see things with your own eyes in order to understand how they work.

A sentence that it took a person four seconds to write might take an hour to translate. It’s not easy. We offer a translation help service to translators on our website, where translators who are stuck can use the contact form on our site and we will try to help them come up with the right answer.


Ever mix up your languages, say, when you’re ordering a pint?

It happens all the time, yes. I have never ordered a pint in the wrong language, no, but it’s physically impossible for me to speak Italian to one person and Spanish to another at the same time, they are just too similar.
And then there are things which you will always only do in your own language, like counting. On the other hand, swearing can get quite multi-lingual – some swearwords just sound better in one language than in another.

And what about the differences between languages – how do you handle these?

Thank God for the differences between languages! Without them, there would be no work for us – long live the Tower of Babel! I could mention a lot of examples, but I don’t really have time to go into detail here. Let’s just say, we’re thankful that differences exist; it’s the reason for our existence, really.

Are you a happy translator?

Translation is a highly competitive business, but a good one. It can be boring sometimes when you’re working all hours and alone at home but it’s fun when you work in a team and can solve problems together and discuss what’s the right way to express something. Translators learn a lot about all kinds of different things, which makes us quite good guests at a dinner party.

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